Return to: towards the good hifi system
Just a few wires…
(Last updated August 18, 2015)
To some, an electrical connection is just a connection: any wire will make an electrical connection, just use Home Depot or Maplins kettle leads and bell wire. Some with engineering-training say it is impossible to measure any electrical difference between, say, a modest and an expensive cable, therefore there can be no sonic difference. I (You can A:B a ordinary computer kettle lead against your current power cable, hear for yourself if that’s true)
Enter pop psychology. Expensive cables are said to be simply a “marketing trick”. They are only “thought to” improve sound because of confirmation bias. This from a website:
“The strategy in selling these products (speaker cable) is, in part, to appeal to those who are looking to impress others with something unique and expensive. There is also pride of ownership (think Rolex) and the belief that if it costs that much it must be good”
Status seeking is an idea borrowed from 1960’s intellectuals, whose thinly-veiled critique of growing consumerism was questionable even in its time. What brings status has changed dramatically over the decades. Boast expensive cables on a hifi forum and see what you get: mockery. The age of the internet has elevated inverted snobbery. Worse, anxiety that someone might be making “easy money” out of you is a meme which can interfere with your will to improve. What if they were, and it is still better?
At the other extreme, is the other axis: if it’s expensive it must be very good, and if its cheap, it can’t be any good. Well, it might be or it might not, forget the so-called Law of Diminishing Returns, price is at best an uncertain indicator, only by listening can you tell how good something is. (However there is one exception to this general rule, and that is the use of silver in cable, which, annoyingly, does very good things sonically and is also very expensive.)
I haven’t tried everything or even most things. I have tried a few manufacturers and settled on one that works for me, trading up through their range. There may well be far better ones out there, but life is too short to try everything. I have learned to trust my ears, not other peoples. Only I know what I hear, no-one else does. I decide whether it sounds better or it is not, the rest is just noise, interference.
Rule One: forget upgrading equipment, first upgrade power and connections.
There is one “focus of interest” on the part of hi fi equipment manufacturers: to sell you another (better) piece of equipment. Their business model is a product-range escalating by price-point and performance level, from entry-model to reference-model, and of course they all have features taken from the model above. The midrange gizmo uses the same thingamy as found in the top of the range Reference gizmo.
Trading up the product range is the least bang per buck imaginable. You need to unleash the potential of what you have already got, and the key to that is all the bits that power, support and connect it.
Supporting, powering and connecting hi fi equipment to reveal the sound it is capable of requires replacing the inexpensive plugs and cables that the manufacturer popped in the box. They worry only about price-competitiveness of their equipment. They can not afford to give you quality interconnects, which can cost as much again as the equipment itself. There are some very effective but expensive interconnects out there, due to the superior conductivity of certain precious metals like silver (whose high cost is due in large measure to the activity of commodity-speculating US hedge funds) not to forget platinum and rhodium-plating.
The power/interconnect/support upgrade path will enormously enrich your listening experience, but it is not for the faint-hearted or peniless. It takes a measure of faith to invest in hifi improvement. It will pay back in spades but it can be a bumpy old journey along the way.
Let’s start by looking at what the end game might look like. Once you have got over the shock, you can start thinking about where you are, and what might work for you, depending on where you are starting from. All it needs is a bit of wire … or two…
(Updated August 2015)
Every item in this “enabling ” infrastructure has made a significant audible difference to the final result – what you hear. The quality of my audio experience today is unrecognisable compared with the sound of the equipment when first installed.That is a journey worth making before you seek to upgrade amplifiers or speakers (provided you have chosen good ones in the first place!) My spend to date is about 35% on components, 65% on infrastructure
To get the most faithful uncoloured signal out of the vinyl groove and into your ears, have three most important issues to manage, after you have chosen your main components:
1. Power: cables to deliver a continuous pure 240 volts at 50Hz, free from any source variation, intrusion generated by other appliances on the domestic circuit, or radio signal interference effects.
2. Interconnects: to eliminate any interaction between the signal and the cable, such that 100% of what goes in comes out. The wires closest to the signal source are the first priority (eg tonearm and phono-stage), those further downstream nearest to the speaker are the least important.
3. Equipment Supports: not to be forgotten, components must be supported in an entirely stable setting and insulated against air-borne or floor-borne micro-vibration which degrades their performance. This is often the cheapest to experiment with, like turntable plinths and sorbothane pads
There are still other factors such as room dynamics, earth quality, and many more, but as regard these three major objectives, none will occur naturally with main components out of the box. Managing them will allow you to hear the best from your equipment, generally at lower cost than upgrading to “better” equipment. It’s also a lot more fun.
What you will hear on the infrastructure improvement journey
Starting at the valley floor and ascending towards the mountain top (which incidentally you can never reach), at the early stages, you get to hear “more” – more bass and more treble, more convincing stereo imagery, greater instruments separation, hear things you had not noticed before.
You may also begin to experience the shortcomings of parts of your system, the expansion of the bass floor may result in loss in higher frequencies, cymbals recede or disappear, many weeks of worse sound before new wires burn in and eventually blossom. It is not all good!
When everything is sounding pretty good, you feel you might just rest, but the next level offers a quite different range of improvement, little to do with “more” hi-fi effects. From here improvements begin to yield more musicality. The interaction between instruments and musicians falls into place, the music becomes more coherent and easier to follow, the artist’s musical intention clear, and the music delivers more intensity of emotion. This stage is enormously satisfying.
Any improvement now to the signal source, like cartridges, arm, and valve phono amp and power supply, you will get the full benefit of, whereas before it would have been held back. Bear in mind, you have to do it all – power, interconnects, and supports – maximise source fidelity before it gets to the main amplifier and speakers. Your system should now have become intensely revealing, you listen to older records with new ears, discover more music.
Where from here?
And the next level – what’s next? I don’t know. What I have learned has been solely through first hand experience: try things and listen for what happens. Experience trumps other people’s “knowledge” every time. I don’t have any problem with this sort of discussion:
Well, there you go, Steve. They say that if you are a fool, it’s better to keep quiet and leave the matter in doubt rather than broadcast it to the world. Still, Steve can punctuate correctly, so he at least got something out of his expensive college education.
Where next? The only way is up. I don’t know where it goes from here, but I sure as hell intend to find out.
Auditioning tips: recognising improvements
I have found it more difficult to recognise immediately the benefit of an “upgrade” , and more easy to recognise the opposite – the loss from a “downgrade”. I could come up with a theory why, but I find explanatory theories – the why – a distraction from identifying the experience – the what. (I could come up with a theory to explain that too).
Start with your system warmed up and pick one familiar LP track. Get your baseline “ear in gear” as it were, with a couple of listens. Take your time to enjoy the music. Next, swap in the new cable – the upgrade. Listen to the entire track again. Reflect on any reactions – particularly the ease of following the music, your emotional reaction, any changes in dynamic range, anything that comes up. You are most at risk of expectation bias at this point, so play the track again, to establish a new baseline. Be wary of noticing new detail, which can be due simply to repeat listening.
Next, refit the original cable, replay the track, and think about the same questions now you have potentially ” downgraded”. Does it sound more muddled, less emotional, are you feeling the loss of anything dynamically- is the bass more dominant and booming? How’s the top-end? Listen again to the track. At this point things often snap into focus: you get a clear sense if you have lost anything by going back, and what. It is usually much clearer than identifying any gains, and less prone to justifying the cable’s expense.
Repeat the step up, play, and step down, as many times as it takes, until you have confidence in your conclusion. A:B:A:B:A:B. If there is nothing to chose between the two or you are still not sure, return the cable and you will be rewarded by saving a great deal of money.
When I did an audition last week like this, the improvement was undeniable and I decided it was worth the expense, which was not trivial. Or perhaps I was just a delusional moron falling for a “marketing trick” to impress my friends…
The penny dropped about cable-skeptics recently when I browsed a hifi forum thread on the subject of cables. Hi Fi forums are, as you might expect, populated with equipment snobs (see left panel).
Nothing is more threatening to an equipment snob than the suggestion that what they hear is largely influenced not by their impressive choice of exotic and fastidiously-chosen equipment but by its “humble” interconnects and power cables. Chap above doesn’t mention even one. That opinion can’t be allowed. The response is almost always the same, the “marketing trick” ad hominem : someone is making easy money out of a gullible fool.You wouldn’t want to be a fool, would you? After you have read its variants a few hundred times you see how these characters protect their vanity: moat and drawbridge. Before you ask, yes, I have a qualification in psychology.
What ever happened to science: test, experiment and conclusions?
Self-help for wire-swappers
Here’s a hot tip. Depending on how your listening room is set up, it can be quite problematic accessing complex wiring at the back of the equipment. If ever you have occasion to pull the whole lot out – as I did when I changed my equipment rack, take the opportunity to photograph the back of your hifi. You would be amazed how many times I have needed to identify which wires go where, which ones go on top, the sequence of + and – , with the help of a handy aide memoire, like this: